Berlin: History and Memory

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As I prepared for my trip to Germany, my dad briefed me on a few simple and essential phrases, such as “What’s your name?” and “Where’s the toilet?” I also learned to count from 1 to 100, which would be handy if I decided to buy anything (I didn’t want to repeat my experience in Austria, where I stared dumbly at the bus driver as he repeated, more and more angrily, how much I owed). Luckily, the fact that I would be meeting Nils, a friend from college who spoke fluent English, decreased the likelihood of a similar episode occurring on this trip.

I flew out of London at an ungodly hour of the morning, bracing myself for easyJet’s in-flight advertisements. If it was anything like Ryan Air, a comparable budget airline that I’ve had the misfortune to fly on in the past, floodlights would turn on just as I was drifting off to sleep, and I’d be bombarded with appeals to buy everything from bags of peanuts to luxury cars. Luckily, easyJet turned out to be much more civilized, and I actually slept for most of the hour-and-a-half flight to Berlin.

Nils met me at the airport, and we began our “Best of Berlin” show, which promised to include the most notable sites in the city center while leaving us time to catch an evening train. We started out at the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, where over a hundred artists had left their mark on a remaining stretch of the physical representation of the Iron Curtain. To be able to touch the Berlin Wall, and to see the ways that artists had represented its legacy, was a privilege.

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After the gallery, we trekked to a number of notable sites in the city center, including but not limited to a historic Soviet TV Tower, Alexanderplatz, Museum Island, Unter den Linden (a grand boulevard running East to West), the Brandenburg Gate, and the Victory Column (a towering monument which Hitler had moved across the city center in order to make way for his grandiose plans to restructure the city into a sort of modern Rome).

The Brandenburg Gate, the focal point of the city.

The Brandenburg Gate, the focal point of the city.

As we walked, Nils explained to me the intricacies of the German elections, which were due to take place in a few days. He expected Merkel, the center-right candidate to win a third term as chancellor, and to set up a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, the largest left-wing party. It seemed odd to me that two fundamentally opposed parties might set aside their differences and run the country together, but like many things in Germany, politics are much more civilized these days than in the United States. When I stopped by the poles on election day, there were no picketers chanting slogans and brandishing signs telling people how they ought to vote. People simply walked into the remarkably peaceful town hall, cast their vote, and left. It made me rather embarrassed for the United States, which apparently can’t even pass a law through normal processes without the government shutting down.

IMG_2539Near the end of the Berlin tour, we visited the Holocaust Memorial. 2700 blocks of granite covered an entire plaza. The significance of the memorial is left up to the observer, but I couldn’t help but notice that the dimensions of the blocks were very similar to those of a coffin. As I walked deeper into the plaza, the blocks towered above me, creating an overwhelming effect of disorientation. The sheer scope of the memorial, and the knowledge that these blocks of stone were only a fraction of the numbers of people murdered during the Holocaust, was a powerful reminder of the human capability for evil.

Beneath the memorial, a museum is dedicated to relating information and stories from the Holocaust. Family trees with photographs, fragments of letters written by victims, and stomach-churning accounts of the crimes committed ensured that this monstrous event won’t be forgotten. Perhaps the most difficult moment was reading a letter written by a twelve-year-old girl to her father. It was not the horror of what she faced (being buried alive in a pit with other victims) that most affected me, but rather the way that she tenderly and innocently told her father that she loved him.

As we walked away from the memorial, I thought it commendable that Germany is willing to confront the darker side of its history. It takes the recognition of injustice and some acceptance of responsibility in order to move past these sorts of tragedies. When it comes to our history of slavery and our persecution of the Native American people, I think the United States still has a long way to go.

I finished my day in Berlin exhausted. We had certainly done a lot of walking, and the fact that I was carrying my clothing for the week on my back didn’t help. It had been a marathon of a day, but it had been worth every ache and stomach-growl. As we passed towering monuments and glorious churches, it felt as though I had been plunged into history itself. Now it was time to take a train to Bad Bevensen, where the next stage of my adventure would take place.

Museum Island

Museum Island

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The famous Berliner Dom

The TV Tower and the old Town Hall

The TV Tower and the old Town Hall

The World Clock in Alexanderplatz

The World Clock in Alexanderplatz

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Ode to a British Dog

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Meet Mini. She’s a Jack Russell Terrier mixed with something else I don’t know, and as you can see, she’s rather adorable. For the last two weeks, Mini has been a member of our family, thanks to her owners’ trip to Mexico, and she’s taken to the small village of Combe with heartfelt gusto. This is her story.

Mini arrived at our front door two weeks ago with two leashes, one squeaky toy, a box of poop-bags, a bone bigger than her head, a ball even bigger than the bone, an array of other dog-related appliances, and two kind guardians (our friends who live down the road) in tow. We’d heard she was something of a Houdini when it came to enclosures, so we’d prepared a chicken-wire fence, hoping to keep her within the bounds of our walled-off garden. Since the walls are as high as my chest, and Mini’s about as high as my lower shin, I didn’t think this would be such an issue. Well, it didn’t take long for me to be rudely surprised.

Assuming our garden enclosure to be quite secure, my family did not always monitor Mini’s movements with the utmost diligence. It only took the barking of photoanother dog for Mini to bolt, finding a way under the chicken-wire fence and bounding over a low portion of the stone wall behind. By the time my sister and I followed her tracks, our quarry had disappeared into the overgrown hedges of the neighbor’s property, with only her distant yippings to alert us of her general whereabouts. My mother grabbed a bag of treats and dashed to the car, hoping to cut off our escapee before she reached the next village. “Just great,” I thought, as I scoured the dense brush for a sign of her. “It’s only the third day, and we’ve already lost her.” I imagined trying to explain to Mini’s owners, in two weeks time, that she was off gallivanting through the British countryside (assuming she hadn’t swum the channel to Europe by then, which, given this dog’s energy and athletic ability, seemed entirely plausible).

Just as I was starting to give up hope of ever seeing Mini again, I heard a vicious snarl from a nearby hedge, followed by a terrified yelp. A lanky brown dog more than twice Mini’s size exploded from the greenery, with our little Houdini in hot pursuit. Mini, ears flattened against her baseball-sized head, face contorted in seething rancor, was determined to run down this pathetic creature who had dared to encroach on her territory. As I took off after the speeding pair, I was amazed that a creature with legs scarcely longer than my fingers could run so fast. Luckily, Mini got caught behind a fence, and I managed to catch up. I grabbed her and brought her back indoors (she was remarkably tolerant once I’d caught her), and from then on, we were always careful to keep a watchful eye on the garden. One great escape was enough.

1176272_10153124341075125_36504194_nDespite her unruly escapades, I’ve grown quite fond of Mini during her residency here at House Hawkins. She’s the sort of dog that you can’t really get angry at, even when she’s devoted herself to the utter destruction of your pillow. She kept me from being too much of a lazy bum by prancing into my room at ten o’clock every morning, jumping on my bed, and licking me enthusiastically in the face. Walks were always highly encouraged by our young canine lodger. Her insatiable thirst for adventure was contagious, and I’d find myself exploring overgrown footpaths, dilapidated fences, and sprawling pastures, when all I had intended was a ten-minute walk around the block.

Perhaps Mini’s most remarkable quality was how she played ball. Instead of attempting to describe this phenomenon, I thought it would be most effective to provide a video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4Q6P8-4kug

Unfortunately, all good things must end, and Mini’s stay here could not last forever. When her owners came to collect her, I braced myself for a difficult goodbye. There would be no more unplanned walks, where I’d be unwittingly dragged down England’s scenic footpaths, no more great escapes to engage my tracking expertise. And I certainly don’t expect to meet as fierce a ball-player anytime soon.

Still, for a creature as small as she is, Mini seems to get around. I’m sure I’ll see her sometime in the future, wherever there’s a squirrel to be chased or a smelly adventure to be had.

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Buttered Scones and Royal Diapers

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It had been over four years since I had last crossed the pond, and as I prepared for my flight to England, I wondered what I would encounter. I had certainly changed a lot in the last four years… what if England had done the same? What if tea time had gone out of fashion, eliminating the possibility for biscuits and buttered scones at 4:30 sharp every day? What if British dental care had drastically improved, depriving me of my constant ego-boost from my passable set of teeth? What if climate change had kicked in and caused sunny weather, dispelling the persistent gloomy drizzle to which I had become accustomed?

The last of these concerns was immediately eliminated upon my arrival at Heathrow airport, where and overcast, drizzling sky greeted me through the airport windows. My father informed me that for the entirety of the past week, the weather had been particularly sunny, but it seemed that the clouds had come out for my arrival, as if to assuage my fears that I might have a nice, warm British summer.

As for my other misgivings, it only took a few days of living in Combe—a quaint little town in the county of Oxfordshire—to assure me that this was still very much the England I had known four years ago. My sister told me that her trip to the dentist had consisted of an evaluation, during which the dentist determined whether or not she needed a cleaning. (She didn’t. Although at least everyone here has access to dental care, so who are we to be critical?) Tea time did not leave me disappointed, as I chowed down on scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream. I may have changed in the last four years, but for the English, traditions die hard.

IMG_2312Speaking of tradition, some of you may have heard a thing or two about a certain royal baby in the past few weeks. We all know that the Brits hold their royal family near and dear, but the birth of George Alexander Louis seems to have created a veritable media frenzy, on par with the Watergate Scandal and the Kennedy assassination. A few weeks ago, as I sat in the room of my hostel in Peru watching CNN International, they couldn’t get enough of his royal babyship. “We are currently standing outside of St. Mary’s Hospital,” one anchor reported, his tone of voice suggesting he had just entered a war zone in Afghanistan. “The royal baby is inside as we speak, along with his mother and father. At the moment, we don’t know anything that we didn’t know three hours ago, and we’re going to keep you updated on all the important things we don’t know about for the rest of the afternoon. All other important worldwide news has been cancelled until further notice. Now it’s over to Patricia Johnson at the Childhood Wellness League, to speculate extensively on how she thinks Kate will raise her new child.” (This is not a precise quote, but instead reflects by best recollection of the anchor’s words.)

Of course, there's no lack of royal baby souvenirs.

Of course, there’s no lack of royal baby memorabilia.

People across Great Britain started hedging bets on what William and Kate would name the royal infant. Expected names, like George, were a more likely gamble, while obscure names, such as Blue Ivy, offered odds of 10,000 to 1. A friend and I joked that William ought to wager all of his life savings on “Peanut” and cash in. His young highness might have a rough time in middle school, but he’d have the highest allowance of any prince in the world.

In addition to skimming over a massive earthquake in China and a horrendous prison breakout from Abu Ghraib, CNN decided to break off for a moment from the royal reportage, in order to cover a story in India where a school principle had poisoned multiple students. Their international correspondent was just beginning to explain what had happened when the anchor cut her off mid-sentence. There was more important news. “The royal baby’s name has been released: It’s George Alexander Louis!” How very pedestrian. And to think, William, you could have been a billionaire, giving Peanut the most wonderful princely life in history.

To be fair, the royal baby news has died down a bit now. It’s faded, like all good things must, giving way to more dreary reports of political scandal in Parliament and violent protests in Northern Ireland. And just so you don’t think I’ve been sitting inside all day watching the news, here are a few pictures of the beautiful British countryside. I’ve had an adventure or two here since I arrived, but just like the news networks, I went and got caught up discussing royal diapers. To hear about the charming city of Oxford and the majestic Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, stay tuned.

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The Final Days

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There are a certain number of must-sees when traveling in Peru. According to the Lonely Planet, some of these sites include Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, the Colca Canyon, and the famous Nazca lines. Considering the outrageous prices for flights from Cusco to Lima, I decided to finish work a week earlier than planned and travel back to Lima by bus, seeing some of these attractions along what has been dubbed the “Gringo Trail.” Now before you say “Wait, didn’t you almost die on a bus going to Cusco already?” let me just say that yes, I did, but the round-about route back to Lima via Puno and Arequipa is far safer than the hazardous mountain road I took before. Besides, I figured that if the Inca gods wanted me dead, they would have finished the job by now. I’d certainly given them enough opportunities.

So on Monday afternoon, I packed my belongings, waved goodbye to South American Explorers, and hopped in a cab for the bus terminal. I had bought my ticket to Puno the day before, and it was for 3 PM. Like everything in South America, buses tend to be late, but now, as I looked at my watch, I was a little concerned that it was already 2:55. Okay, so my laid-back attitude might have been a little excessive. And the traffic sure wasn’t helping.

I paid my driver extra to take me and my heavy suitcase into the terminal parking lot, and rushed inside. By now it was at least ten minutes past three. The lady at the gate told me to go to platform one, granting me a shred of hope. The bus must not have left yet! But as I squeezed my way through to platform one, I found another bus, bound for some city I’d never heard of. I frantically asked the people around me if they knew about a Power bus leaving for Puno, and was met with blank stares. Then someone pointed across the parking lot. “There it goes! I think you missed your bus.” Sure enough, a bus bearing the name “Power” was just turning out onto the street. I swore in English, and the blank stares turned to sympathetic ones. It looked like I might be waiting awhile to get to Puno, with a pocket 25 soles lighter.

As I sulked back towards the terminal proper (as much as one can sulk while hefting a 50-pound suitcase and a loaded trekking pack, that is) an official approached me. The lady at the gate had told him that I was looking for the bus to Puno, and he had good news. The Power bus had not yet departed! In fact… it hadn’t even arrived. It should be here “any minute” he said, which I knew meant “sometime today, probably, or possibly early tomorrow.” Relief washed over me. For once, I was grateful to be on South American time.

The seven-hour ride to Puno was cramped, noisy, and cold. In another stroke of genius, I had stored my fleece with my backpack underneath, so I ended up pulling my arms inside my T-shirt for the little warmth it afforded. On numerous occasions, vendors would climb up into the bus when it made its frequent stops. Curiously, they seemed to be met with either no success or with roaring enthusiasm. When a lady stepped up offering bags of bread, people started yelling and frantically reaching for their purses. As the bread began to run out, passengers in the back started virtually trampling each other to get at the stuff. I just sat quietly and ate my choclo con queso (corn and cheese) that I had bought from the last vendor, thinking I was either blessed with a profound aloofness from the mob mentality or was missing out on some damn good bread.

Needless to say, it was a relief to arrive in Puno, put on my fleece, and get to a hostel with a warm bed. Everyone I knew who had been to Puno had told me that the city didn’t have much to offer, so the next morning I took a cab directly to the docks and looked for a boat out onto the lake. Spanning the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the origin of creation in Inca mythology, and is the highest navigable lake in the world. It certainly was an impressive sight, I thought, as I set off in a little motorboat with about fifteen other travelers plus the local captain. I’d read somewhere that the lake turns everyone into a good photographer. I’ll let you judge the truth of that statement for yourself:

Approaching the Uros Islands.

The Island of Taquile, population of about 2000.

View from the top of Amantani Island, population about 4000.

The first stop was at one of about 40 floating islands, constructed and inhabited by the Uros. Dating back to well before the Inca Empire, the Uros were a peaceful people who sought the isolation of the lake in order to avoid war. They used, and still use, the naturally-growing totora reeds for… well, for just about everything. Boats, houses, the very islands themselves, are all built with these reeds. They can even be eaten, too! (They sort of taste like celery, which, to me, makes the whole business all the more impressive. Can you imagine building a house out of celery?) Tourism has effected the Uros profoundly, and while it has undoubtedly brought them considerable wealth, there are severe downsides as well. I found myself uncomfortable not buying a 5-sol postcard from one lady after she directed me to the bathroom, and every one on the island seemed to see us as walking bags of money (and who can blame them?) I have a deep respect for the 5% of Uru people who choose to have no interaction with tourism whatsoever, thereby losing the material benefits, but maintaining their traditional way of life.

After Uros, we continued for three hours by boat, until we reached the natural island of Amantani. One of the bigger islands on the lake, Amantani is home to about 4,000 inhabitants, who have also become very accustomed to tourism. As a community, they have developed a system of rotation to deal justly with the influx of tourists, most of whom want homestays for a night. I was assigned to a quite but kind hostess, who showed me and another tourist through the terraced fields to her home. The island has no cars and limited electricity, and I can only imagine how peaceful it must be when there isn’t an influx of eager camera-snapping gringos. I slipped away from the crowds as they gathered in the main plaza, and headed up to the Pachamama sacred site at the top of the island. My climb was rewarded with some of the most stunning views I have ever seen, and a sunset I won’t soon forget.

On the boat ride back to Puno the next day, I met three guys from the Basque Country who were traveling with a Taiwanese girl they had met in Cusco. Some would call the Basque Country a part of northern Spain, but you wouldn’t want to around these three. Fierce independistas, they support separation from the Spanish state and the establishment of an autonomous nation, defined by their unique language and culture. I had heard a lot about the Basque Country when studying abroad in Sevilla, mostly in the context of Eta, a Basque group that the Spanish government calls a terrorist organization. But one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and my new friends were quick to inform me of the vile human rights abuses committed by the Spanish state. I guess there’s two sides to every coin.

It turned out the three Basque fellows and the Taiwanese girl were planning on going to Arequipa as well, and they were happy to add an American to their motley crew. Another bus ride (this one shorter and much more comfortable) and we arrived in Arequipa late that night.

Arequipa’s bustling Plaza de Armas.

The second most populous city in Peru after Lima, Arequipa is an economic and cultural hub, bustling with mothers pushing baby trollies, men in crisp business suits, and yes, its fair share of tourists to boot. Its plethora of colonial-era Spanish buildings , constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar, has led to its nickname”La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), and its famous Santa Catalina Monastery, a beautiful historical citadel, afforded the city status as a UNESCO world heritage site. We had a relaxed first day meandering through the streets, navigating the crowds at the pigeon-infested (and stunning) Plaza de Armas, buying some local goods in the covered market (which was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed a certain tower in Paris), and eating a whopping lunch at a typical picantaria. The heavy Spanish influence in Arequipa is unmistakable, and I found myself reminiscing over my time in Sevilla last Fall. We arranged to leave for the Colca Canyon the next day, and would be gone for three days, which left only two more to see Nazca and the South Coast when I got back. Considering a good chunk of that would be spent sitting on a bus, which God knows, I’d had enough of by now, I searched for some flights, found a good deal, and made a quick decision that would give me two more days in Arequipa, set me back only about $30, and leave my rear end 15 hours less sore when all was said and done. Who wanted to see a bunch of lines in some rock anyway? Nazca could wait until another time.

The town of Cabanaconde is a six-hour bus ride from Arequipa, but worth every minute of it. The Colca Canyon, which is more than two times as deep as the Grand Canyon in the U.S., has features spectacular trekking routes, majestic condors (the world’s biggest flying bird), and even a little town with swimming pools dubbed “The Oasis” at the bottom. I’m sure you’ve all heard enough about my trekking adventures, so I’ll let the pictures do the telling. Suffice it to say that my three Basque friends made excellent trekking partners, and we ended up doing the entire 3-day circuit in only a day and a half, with only minor cases of respiratory problems to show for it. (This was mainly Igor, who smokes like a chimney, and threatened to keep me awake with this hacking cough. But he reached the top of the Canyon before I did, so what can I say?) We arrived back in Arequipa on Sunday night, tired, stinky, and feeling accomplished.

Well, I guess that’s just about all, folks. Tonight, I fly to Lima, then to Mexico City, from there to Washington D.C., and finally, home. It will be a long trip, but at least there isn’t a 23-hour bus ride involved. I feel like I ought to wrap up with some statement about what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed as a person, or something to that effect. But I’ve never been good with grand, sweeping statements, so I’ll just say this: I’ve seen some wonderful places here, met some great friends, had some killer adventures that luckily didn’t kill me, and I’ve learned to prepare a damn good guacamole. Peru, you’ve been good to me. It’s as simple as that. And thanks to you, beloved reader, for joining me along the way.

Just to continue my obnoxious theme of me looking out on spectacular landscapes…

The Santa Catalina Monastery

Arequipa’s cathedral at dusk.

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
― J.M. Barrie

Survival Tips

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So after being in Cusco for about eight weeks, I thought it might be usefel to share some general tips on surviving here. Most of you probably won’t find yourselves in the capital of the ancient Inca empire anytime soon, but on the off-chance that you do wind up in these parts sometime (which, by the way, I highly recommend), you might find these little nuggets of knowledge worthwhile. And hey, even if you have absolutely no intention on coming to Cusco, to Peru, or even to the continent of South America, you might just find my advice interesting, inspiring, ingenious, or, if nothing else, worth a good laugh at my expense. Anyway, here goes.

How to Survive in Cusco and the Surrounding Are

Eating well in Cusco is remarkably easy, even if you’re a stingy, not-particularly-wealthy student whose cooking abilities extend about as far as a bowl of buttered pasta, with meat sauce on a good day. Huge markets like San Pedro (below) have everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to entire pig heads, providing numerous options for the adventurous cook. For the more faint of heart, most markets have a section of small restaurant stalls where local women prepare a belly-busting menu for the equivalent of just over a dollar. So what do I do on an average day? I start by cooking something simple, which almost invariably consists of eggs. Fried eggs, scrambled eggs, eggs with fresh bread from the market, eggs without fresh bread from the market. It all works. For lunch, I eat for free at the SAE clubhouse, which is one of the perks of interning here. This ranges from delectable veggie burgers from a local place called Prasada to buying our own ingredients at the market and cooking for ourselves. In the evenings, having spent next-to-nothing on food, I tend to have a nice meal out on the town. Cusco’s international demographic and heavy focus on tourism means there’s an option for every taste. Indian cuisine at Korma Sutra is worth the higher prices; British-style pubs abound, offering stodgy, bland food as only the British do; and homey cafes serve up American breakfasts that will satisfy your heartache for a good stack of pancakes (hopefully not giving you a more literal heartache at the same time). Even the touristy restaurants are usually far cheaper than in the States, with a full steak dinner costing about ten dollars. It’s pretty nice being able to eat out almost every night without breaking the bank. And if you’re ever particularly low on funds, you can buy a couple of anticuchos (skewers of succulent meat with a potato on the end) from one of the numerous street vendors, and be completely satisfied. Aprovecha!

Staying Clean in Cusco can be a little more difficult. For some odd reason, the cost of doing laundry here is not proportional to other prices; in fact, it’s more expensive than in the U.S.! There’s really no way to wash your own clothes, short of filling up a sink and scrubbing away, so most tourists opt for the drop-off and pick-up services that line the street. Since they charge by the kilogram, I was unpleasantly surprised the first time I brought two weeks worth of soiled shirts and jeans to lady down the street. When I got my bulging bag back the next day, the clothes were expertly folded, and had that crisp sun-dried feeling. But when I unfolded a pair of jeans and put them on, I realized that they were just as dirty as the day before. It seemed that they had been dunked in water, hung out to dry, pressed, folded… everything except cleaned. After shopping around a little, I managed to find someone who could get my clothes reasonably clean, but due to the prices, I soon accepted that I’d be wearing my jeans a few more times between each wash (and by that I mean I’d never wash them). Showering here can be an adventure in itself. A terrible, ice-cold adventure. Sometimes you’ll get back from a long day of hiking, all too excited for your tepid, low-pressure shower, only to turn on the tap and… nothing. No water whatsoever. Even when it does work, the water switches from tolerably warm to freezing at will, making it necessary to jump in and out according to the shower’s mood. And on the off-chance that you get a nice hot shower, which can happen from time to time, the blast of Arctic air that greets you when you open the curtain is enough to freeze Satan’s nipples off. Needless to say, showering becomes much less attractive in this environment. So what’s my advice? Well, there’s really not a whole lot you can do, short of finding a luxury hotel that boasts an actual hot shower. If you’re planning on staying in Peru for a while, you’d better get used to not being as clean as you’re accustomed to. Just embrace the grime and move on.

Navigating Cusco and the surrounding area is not too difficult, once you get used to the dangerously-narrow streets, the taxi drivers who want to scam you, and the colectivo mini-vans which leave for nearby towns from completely random streets scattered across the city. As beautiful as Cusco’s historic center might be, half the people you see are gringos sporting hiking boots and North Face fleeces, while the other half are locals trying to sell you something. It can get kind of frustrating having to say “No, gracias” to every picture-toting Peruvian who crosses your path, so I eventually started ignoring them. This might seem a little rude, but it’s really more a matter of not losing my voice when I walk across the city. It’s honestly absurd how many girls you’ll pass on one street, trying to sell you a massage. “Masajes, amigo?” they’ll say, shoving a little brochure in your face. Sometimes I get the urge to turn to one and explain that, 1) I’m not her amigo, and 2) If she just saw me turn down the other ten girls in the street offering the exact same massage, I might just not be interested in hers. A particular lady who works for a restaurant named Cafe La Paz has become a standing joke among my friends and me. She wears a funny purple dress and lacy hat, and whenever any of us pass by, she says the same thing, without fail: “Excuse me mister, are you looking for good refreshments? Cafe La Paz.” She says this in a droning, robotic voice, and finishes by mechanically extending her arm in the direction of her beloved restaurant, which, frankly, looks rather overpriced and forgettable. My friend Alli and I have discussed the possibility that the Cafe La Paz lady is actually a robot who has been built by the establishment, and programed not to offer anyone in Cusco any paz until they come inside for a meal. More recently, there’s been a much more human-like man outside. It seems that the management realized their employee was scaring off more customers than she was bringing in, and decided to have her sacked. But where was I going with this? Oh yeah, advice. Stick to the sidewalks if you don’t want to become gringo road-kill, always agree on your taxi fare before getting in (unless you’re confident enough to say nothing and then insist on the standard 3 soles at the end), and whatever you do, don’t touch Cafe La Paz with a ten-foot pole. The place always weirded me out, and now that their robot employee is in the scrap pile, it’s lost its redeeming comedic value.

Trekking around Cusco can be superb, provided you prepare adequately and take the necessary precautions. Being an experienced backpacker could be a plus if you plan on hiking independently. After doing the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu (see previous post), I decided that made me an experienced enough backpacker to do a trek without a group.  So I persuaded my friend Tony to join me for a three-day trek through the Lares Valley. We rented a small gas stove and some sleeping mats, and borrowed a tent from our friend, Killian. Our next project was food. I had never packed for a three-day camping trip before, so I let Tony make the list. I did have a general idea that lightweight, high-calorie food was the best stuff to bring on a trek like this, so when Tony handed me his list, I was more than a little concerned. 4 carrots, 4 tomatoes, a tree of broccoli, 2 beats… the list went on. I tried to argue that vegetables were mostly water, and therefore rather poor on the weight-to-calorie ratio, but my friend would hear nothing of it. We needed something to go with the quinoa, he insisted. So I dutifully walked to San Pedro Market and bought the supplies, being sure to buy extra nuts and to “accidentally” forget the beats. When we got off the colectivo at Yanahuara, the starting point of our trek, our packs were choc-a-bloc with Cusco’s finest produce, with a few nuts and and Snickers thrown into the mix. As you can see in the picture, I was excited to begin my first independent trek. Twenty minutes later, I was panting and sweating in the beating sun, my shoulders already aching from weight. The going was slow, and the two of us soon realized that, based on a prior miscalculation and our failure to start trekking four hours earlier, that we would probably reach the first camp site at around 9 PM. Given how cold it can get up in the mountains, we were lucky to happen upon a tour group that had just finished coming the other way. This meant that a host of arrieros, or horsemen, complete with their trusty steeds, had just finished their gig and were heading back towards Lares anyway. It wasn’t too hard to negotiate a price for their services, and pretty soon we were hiking up the trail behind a line of horses, our packs

My friend Tony, dressed in traditional Andean clothing. Would you trust this guy to plan out your menu for a 3-day trek? Well… I did.

securely fastened to two of their backs. It was the best twenty soles I ever spent. The rest of the trek was not easy, but it was doable. We made sure to eat a huge dinner that incorporated plenty of vegetables so as to cut down on weight, and even though the second day was the steepest, we did okay. One of the horsemen had invited us to his house in the community of Huacahuasi. Seeing the family dress Tony up in their traditional colorful garb, and listening as he tried to persuade them to kill and prepare him one of the twenty guinea pigs that scampered about on the floor, was one of the priceless moments of the trip. We reached Lares exhausted, soar, and, in my case, with some serious bowel discomfort, but the important part is that we made it. So, to offer some advice on trekking, I would go independently and just let your adventure unfold. You might encounter things you would have never seen on a guided tour, and there’s nothing like getting lost in walled-off vegetable patches remarkably reminiscent of the Shire to satisfy your need for excitement. Just don’t pack too many damned vegetables.

Well, that just about concludes my Cusco Survival Tips. If you want any advice on other matters (or if you actually want some real tips instead of a bunch of poorly-disguised ramblings), feel free to drop me a line. Adios!

The Way to Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu tickets booked: check. Backpack filled halfway with camping equipment, and the other half with Nature Valley and Snickers bars: check. Tour operator booked: well… kind of. My fellow intern, Killian, and I had talked with our friend Alain, a tour guide who has all sorts of connections around Cusco. We had told him that we needed to do the Salkantay trek on the cheap, so he made a few phonecalls, took our money and passport numbers, and came back half an hour later with our tour booked. I asked him what the company was, and he said they didn’t really have a name or an office. They were completely unofficial, did not pay any taxes, and offered a “very basic service.” In other words, exactly what we were looking for… assuming we would get to Machu Picchu in one piece.

At 4:30 AM on Wednesday morning, we walked to the Plaza de San Francisco to meet our group. Except for the occasional tourist stumbling home from a discoteca, the streets were deserted. Once we reached the plaza, we found a typical white van, with a few Peruvians milling about, and a couple of tourists, easily identifiable by their alpaca sweaters and knit “Cusco” hats. As we waited for the rest of the group to show up, a man walked up to us, selling cake. He must have known that a tour was leaving at 5 in the morning, and had gotten up to exploit this niche market of un-breakfasted gringos. Hey, I thought, that was dedication. I would have bought a piece, but it was banana cake, and I hate bananas.

Once the rest of the group showed up, we drove two-and-a-half hours to Mollepata, the small town where the Salkantay trek begins. We had mediocre (at best) breakfast of bread, jam, and coca tea, and prepared to leave. Each person was allowed to check 5 kg of supplies to be carried by the horses. This was one of the main perks of booking a tour, because carrying all your stuff for four days at altitudes of up to 4.6 kilometers is far from a piece of cake. A sent my sleeping bag, some clothes, and toiletries with the horses. I kept the Snickers bars.

Before setting off, we stood around in a circle and made introductions. I was delighted to find that I was the only American; our motley crew of fifteen was comprised of tourists from England, Australia, Holland, Austria, Germany, and Colombia. And, of course, our wonderful Peruvian guides: Jorge and Leo. Although their English was skirting the boundary of basic proficiency, they were accomplished enough to crack jokes… and crack jokes they did. Jorge kicked off the fun by telling the Austrian couple that he was sorry, there would be no kangaroos on the trek. This led to hoots of laughter from the group, and a proud grin from Jorge. I don’t think any of us explained his mistake.

We set out from Mollepata at about nine. The morning had been cold, but as the sun got higher in the sky, I started to break a sweat. We walked along a dirt road for a while, with not much to look at but a few interesting plants, whose special properties Jorge explained at great length. Eventually, the incline got more steep, and we were afforded views of sweeping mountain pastures and deep river-lined valleys. A road snaked its way up through the hills, providing a shortcut for the lazy, but we took the less-obvious paths that went directly up. I found myself grateful that we had gone with a guide, or it would have been a long morning.

We stopped for lunch at a small field, complete with tables, wooden stumps for chairs, and tablecloths. The food was actually pretty good: sopa de maiz followed by rice and potatoes with beef. I was favorably impressed. Unfortunately, the food was doomed to steadily decline in quality over the course of the trek.

After a couple more hours of hiking, the snow-capped peak of Salkantay Mountain came into view, dwarfing the other mountains around us. The highest peak in the Cordillera Vilcabamba part of the Peruvian Andes, Salkantay got its name from the Quechua word meaning uncivilized, savage, and invincible. It was first climbed by a French-American expedition in 1952, and three members of the team did not make the summit. A couple of years later, the famous mountaineer, Fritz Kasparek, died on Salkantay when he fell through a cornice near the summit. Needless to say, climbing the mountain itself was not part of our itinerary.

We made our first camp at an outpost called Soraypampa, which was under the looming shadow of Salkantay. People had warned me that the first night was cold, and they had not been lying. I wore every item of warm clothing I had, including a fleece, wool socks, hat, and gloves, but still my teeth chattered as we milled about the darkening campsite, waiting for dinner. Luckily, our tents were set up within a tarp-covered structure, providing an extra barrier against the chill. Our cooks brought us hot drinks and popcorn as an appetizer, a welcome snack after eight solid hours of hiking. I stuffed my face so much with popcorn that by the time dinner came I hardly had an appetite.

The written-in altitude is the correct one…

After dinner, our guides briefed us on the plan for tomorrow. It was to be the most difficult day of the trek by far, with a steep four-hour hike up to the pass. When we reached the highest point, at 4,600 meters, we would perform some sort of ritual, for which Jorge insisted we each bring a coca leaf. He also told us he would sacrifice a virgin, so few of us took him seriously enough to remember to grab a leaf from the tea-tray the next morning. For 100 soles, we were given the option of horseback riding instead of toughing out tomorrow’s four-hour slog. My friend Killian, who already had some nasty blisters from his poorly worn-in boots decided to take the deal, along with seven more members of our fifteen-person group.

So I was among the minority setting out by foot at 6 AM the next morning, still bundled in all the clothing I had brought. The horses gave us a good head-start, which before long I realized would be quite necessary. At this altitude, what seemed like a moderate uphill climb felt more like a moderate sprint, and a steep incline felt like scaling a sheer cliff after smoking a pack of cigarettes. I can’t honestly claim to have ever tried this, but you get the idea. In between bouts of heavy panting and fierce Snickers-eating, I paused occasionally to enjoy some truly remarkable views.

Long after the horse-riders had passed us and after I was sweating in my T-shirt despite the brisk air, the pass finally came into sight. I knew that was the highest point in the trek, and after these last few meters, it was all downhill. I stopped thinking about the horrendously low amount of oxygen in my lungs and kept putting the next foot forward. I was proud to be the first among the walkers to reach the top. As the last stragglers clambered up, we relished in our victory.

Our beloved Jorge took a picture of the group with each person’s camera in turn, including the prized device of a Korean member of the group, Thai, which bore a striking resemblance to the Hubble telescope. Jorge seemed to think it was funny and politically correct to call Thai Japanese because of his obsession with taking photos. Before long, the name-calling had evolved into “Samurai,” despite the fierce protestations of our Korean friend.

The pass was bitterly cold, and Jorge was so preoccupied with all the cameras that he forgot to perform his ritual with the coca leaves that nobody had brought. He didn’t even sacrifice a virgin.

The descent felt like a lazy river ride compared to what had come before. We passed through expansive valleys and into cloud-forest in only a few hours. The temperature rose dramatically, and people started smacking at the tiny flies that swarmed from the bright green foliage. We passed passion fruit and avocado trees, and after a brief and intense rainfall, the path became slippery with mud. It was a long and messy walk to the second campsite, but at least it was not uphill. I changed into dry clothes and settled into my popcorn and crackers, thinking it had been a rather successful couple of days.

The next two days of the trek were a walk in the park. A half day of moderate descent followed by a bus ride to Santa Teresa, where we spent the afternoon lounging in hot springs… well that wasn’t exactly difficult. And zip-lining over the jungle canopy the next morning wasn’t too bad either. The afternoon on the fourth day was a little more strenuous, as we had to carry all our equipment, but at least it was a level walk along a scenic train track, with partial glimpses of Machu Picchu’s terraces towering above us. We reached Aguas Calientes late in the afternoon, fairly tired and more than ready to sleep in a real bed and eat excessive quantities of overpriced pizza.

Indeed, these two activities were about all there was to do in Aguas Calientes, a pretty unremarkable town, entirely catered towards tourists. As the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes was a hive of pasty gringos, menu-brandishing Peruvians, and hideous wooden statues of stereotypical Incas bearing baskets of wooden corn.

Entering Aguas Calientes

We checked into our “hostel,” which was about the sketchiest establishment I had ever been in. The building was sandwiched in between a candy shop and a dirty hair salon, and had no sign outside. Neither did it have a front desk, just a staircase that went right up to the rooms, and an attendant who might be around somewhere in the building if you yelled for him loud enough. Killian, Thai, and I were cramped into a tiny room with unwashed sheets, a freezing shower, and a sink that leaked out onto the floor. Yet after three nights of tents and paper-thin sleeping pads, this felt like luxury. A wasted no time in flopping down on my bed and falling asleep.

Thai’s electronic watch beeped at 4 AM the next morning and we staggered out of bed to get ready for the big day at Machu Picchu. I decided to pack light: a sandwich that I’d bought the day before, a liter of water, and my camera. I expected the day to get hot, so I wore light pants and a T-shirt. The rest of my stuff would stay at the hostel.

In my groggy early morning state, I was hardly prepared for what would come next. Not two minutes of waiting outside the hostel for the rest of the group, and we heard shouts coming from down the street. I was just inside the doorway, so I couldn’t see what was going on. A girl in our group screamed and pointed. “He just pushed that man into the river!”

We rushed out into the street to see. A hulking Peruvian man stood at the wall across the street, overlooking the roaring river, which was a good three meters below. A man with a red jacket sputtered and fought the current, trying to get back on land. “He pushed that guy!” the girl in our group yelled. “Stop him!”

But the large man was already running down the street to where a bend led down to the river. As he ran, he picked up jagged fist-sized stones and started hurling them at his adversary. The men were shouting in rage or fear, but their words were lost on me. Not wanting my day at Machu Picchu to start with a murder, I yelled “Policia! Policia!” at the top of my voice.

The man in red managed to get around his enemy and run down the street, dodging chunks of rock as he went. When it was clear that he had gotten away, the big man sidled towards us, saying in Spanish “To me! To me” along with other jumbled petitions to join his cause. He showed me the blood dripping down the back of his neck, as if that were adequate explanation. I tried to tell him to find a hospital, simultaneously realizing how silly I must seem to these men bent on killing each other.

For a few moments, it seemed that the action had subsided. But suddenly, shouts and screams erupted from farther down the street. Our group rushed for the shelter of our hostel as a mob of at least fifteen ran towards us, throwing rocks and screaming. I could no longer tell who was fighting who. The mob ran past, followed by three policemen in hot pursuit. Maybe my shouts had done something after all. I looked at my tour guide for some kind of explanation, but he seemed, if anything, slightly amused by the whole affair. He gave me a “well, that’s life” kind of shrug, and let it go.

Even factoring in our encounter with the grizzled underbelly of Aguas Calientes, we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu a good half-hour before opening. That was when it started to rain. Lightly at first, but before long, it was bucketing down in torrents. Under a small overhang, I huddled with the rest of our group, most of whom had brought rain jackets. Shivering in my T-shirt, I cursed my brilliant notion to pack light.

When the gate opened at 5, most of our group rushed ahead to make the hour-long hike up to the ruins in the rain, hoping to somehow cath the famous Machu Picchu sunrise. Killian and I waited behind under our scant shelter, neither of us feeling so keen on getting drenched. Killian told me that in the rainforest, it would often rain hard like this for a half-hour or so and then let up. So we waited as scores of poncho-clad tourists rushed through the gates into the darkness.

At 5:45, the rain finally subsided to a drizzle. Our guided tour of the ruins was to start in fifteen minutes. It was time.

The climb up was not easy. Seemingly endless flights of slippery stone steps led up through dripping trees. My legs aching, I wondered why the Incas, who were supposed to be rather small of stature, found it necessary to build such large steps. However, I felt exhilarated by our decision to wait until now, as we shot past soaked and miserable tourists. We reached the top in half the usual time, and just made the guided tour.

The tour was not particularly enlightening. Jorge was at the height of his customary enthusiasm, but his jokes were lost on most of our wet and shivering group. The most memorable “fact” was what Jorge told us about a series of terraced waterfalls. Rumor had it (according to Jorge) that the Incan king would stand at the highest of the waterfalls to take his shower, with the rest of the city standing progressively lower, according to social stature. The lowest pauper, therefore, would be showering in the dirty water of the entire population of Machu Picchu. Clearly one hundred percent fabrication, but amusing nevertheless.

After we said goodbye to Jorge, it was time for our own exploration of the ruins. Killian and I had bought tickets for Huaynapicchu, the famous mountain overlooking the site, which we could enter at 10 AM. We bought overpriced hot chocolates by the entrance and tried desperately to warm up. Killian suggested taking a bus back into town, but I would have none of it. This was my one time at Machu Picchu, and I was going to make the most of it, fog and rain or no. We walked determinedly back into the ruins and magically… the drizzle stopped. Then the fog cleared. And a few rays of warm sun began to poke through the clouds.

I took off my pink plastic poncho that I’d bought at the entrance, sighed with relief, and took out my camera. It had been a long four days to get here, and I had finally been rewarded.

I could easily name my album from this trek “Pictures of Me Looking Out on Awesome Landscapes.” A little egotistical maybe, but with the views at Salkantay and Machu Picchu, these sorts pictures were all-too tempting.

The top of Huaynapicchu.

The Party’s in Cusco: from Corpus Christi to Inti Raymi

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After reading my last post, my sister Louisa suggested that I write something where I don’t almost die. It’s true, I guess, the near-death experiences (while not in the least bit exaggerated, I assure you) might be getting a little repetitive. Although I’m sure my loving sister had nothing but my well-being in mind when she asked me not to almost die again sometime between the last post and this one.

All-in-all, I think I’ve heeded her advice. I may have crossed a few streets that are frequented by insane taxi drivers, but mostly when they’re tearing down the road at a reasonable distance from my person. A fellow intern saw a man hit by a taxi the other day, so one does have to be careful about these things. The driver couldn’t really make the argument that he hadn’t seen the pedestrian, for the latter was running through the streets shooting off fireworks in all directions. I guess this driver just couldn’t be bothered to brake. Or maybe he really hated fireworks.

To be perfectly honest, I can sort of sympathize with him (about being sick of fireworks, not the manslaughter part). Shortly after I arrived in Cusco, the festivities leading up to Inti Raymi began. Inti Raymi, the “Festival of the Sun” was the most important festival in the Inca Empire. It was banned by the Spanish for a few hundred years, but was revived in 1944, and has been celebrated in Cusco ever since. I didn’t know much about the festival when I got here, but I did notice that Cusco seemed to be an extraordinarily lively city. In the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square, children of various ages engaged in lively dances every night. Huge parties, complete with live bands and ample Cuzquena beer kicked off all across the city. And, more than anything, there were gratuitous displays of fireworks.

A different sort of dance…

Ok, to be honest, I don’t know if they were all fireworks. Some of the noises were probably caused by firecrackers or similar kinds of explosive devices, whose primary purpose is to make a loud noise. Regardless, these sounds were going off at all hours. I’d find myself jolted awake at night to a series of deafening cracks, only to turn to my clock and realize, with a groan, that it was 6 in the morning. I don’t know what was a stronger emotion: my anger at being woken bright and early by a full-canon salute, or my confusion as to why anyone would find this an appropriate time for such a thing.

Carrying a saint ain’t easy.

As if this weren’t enough fun for one week, Corpus Christi was being celebrated at the same time. Giant crowds filled the main square to watch as a number of saintly effigies were paraded out of the cathedral and through the streets. I don’t know if this is a volunteer job or some sort of mandatory rite of passage, but as I stood under the beating Cusco sun, I was sure glad I wasn’t one of these robed guys who had to carry the platform. Vendors milled about in the crowds, trying to sell cokes, less-than appetizing ice cream popsicles, and frankly embarrassing disposable cardboard caps that seem to be inordinately popular around here. Despite a tingling sensation of unease which gripped at my stomach, I decided to try a traditional Corpus Christi meal. This included chicken, tortilla, sun-dried alpaca meat, fish-eggs (which had some fancy name), and cuy (guinea pig). For the most part, the meal was delicious. I couldn’t get myself to eat the claws or head of the cuy, but the meat was sort of like a mixture between chicken and pork. To explain my hesitation, I told the locals around me that guinea pigs were pets where I came from, a fact which they seemed to find hilarious. I couldn’t stomach the crunchy fish-eggs, but I polished off the rest of the meal, and washed it all down with an Inka Cola (yes, that’s a thing here).

After a solid ten days of preparatory dancing, parties, and parades, it was time for the Inti Raymi festival. I got up bright and early to have a six-thirty breakfast with some interns and members from South American Explorers, and we made our way over to Qorikancha, Cusco’s ancient Inca temple.

Qorikancha: An Inca temple, with the Convent of Santo Domingo constructed on top of it.

The crowds were already flocking to the first site of the day’s festivities. It was a good mix of Andean locals and picture-snapping gringo tourists. First, the priest came out on a high terrace and performed a blessing, which included scattering some sort of dust off the edge of the wall and an incantation in Quechua. A careless vendor interrupted the sacred speech by yelling “Hats! Hats for sale!” This drew shocked gasps and admonitions from the crowd, answered by an apologetic look from the hat vendor. However, she was not ashamed enough to refrain from whispering “Hats for sale!” a few more times as she continued through the crowd.

The priest was followed by the Incan king, who was to be featured extensively in the day’s festivities. He spoke some words, this time uninterrupted, accompanied by grand gestures to the sky and sun. Our guide explained that he was greeting the various groups representing all the areas of Southern Peru, and asking the gods for a plentiful harvest. Afterwards, he poured maiz off the wall into the open blanket held by the women below.

The first part of the ceremony was over, and we made our way over to the side of the temple to watch the procession that would lead over to the central square. Tourists jostled for good spots, sometimes quite fiercely. A crew of robed servants took their places at the door to the temple, ready to lift the platforms that would carry the king and queen. The suspense was broken when a tow-truck showed up to drag off an illegally parked van which was blocking the way of the procession. The crowd cheered, and I wondered if this was also a part of the traditional Inti Raymi festival. The Removal of the Ancient Van that Had Blocked the King’s Passage. If not, a certain driver was in for a serious fine.

After the procession, the festivities continued in the Plaze de Armas. Regiments of colorfully dressed actors danced and saluted the king as he stood in the center of the square. We ate an absurdly-priced lunch on a balcony overlooking the plaza, and then hiked up to Sacsayhuaman, where the real party began.

I had visited the ruins of Sacsayhuaman before, but nothing could prepare me for the difference. Many people had camped out the night before in order to have a good spot to view the proceedings, which were to include more dancing and a simulated alpaca sacrifice. (They used to actually kill an alpaca, but when the animal rights groups got involved, a feigned knife thrust followed by the presentation of a red handkerchief had become the norm.) Those of us who hadn’t spent 100 to 200 dollars for a VIP seat were doomed to stand in the massive crowd on the hillside. I’m lucky enough to be about a foot taller than most of the locals here, so I could see about half of what was going on. But I couldn’t hear very well, and we had lost our Quechua-speaking guide, so I didn’t feel so enlightened as to the meaning of of the proceedings. After awhile, my friend and I agreed that the dancing was much the same as what we had seen for the rest of the day, that we were dead tired, and that it was time to head back to town and take a nap. I didn’t even bother to see the alpaca sacrifice.

So that was Inti Raymi: a very long day packed with colorfully dressed dancers, extensive rituals, and extremely repetitive flute music. It was quite the spectacle to be sure, but before the end of the day I found myself hating the armies of tourists (of which, of course, I was a member) and I did not feel particularly enlightened about Incan civilization. However, this wasn’t the sort of event you could see every day, and I counted myself lucky to have arrived during Cusco’s most festive period of the year. I had gotten used to life being a constant party. After Inti Raymi was over, the Plaza de Armas seemed oddly empty at night, and the streets devoid of shouts and music. But being able to get a full night’s sleep without the blast of firecrackers… that I didn’t regret.

One of Cusco’s many Llamas, dolled up for the festivities.

Everyone came out for Corpus Christi and Inti Raymi, from the very old to the very young.

The Plaza de Armas from above the city.

How to Cure Altitude Sickness: The Sacred Valley in a Day and a Half

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I had heard about altitude sickness before coming to Cusco. It’s a result of the body’s reaction to having about 40% less oxygen than it’s used too. The symptoms are headaches, dehydration, dizziness, shortness of breath, and sometimes even death (but that’s only in really extreme cases). People going on treks around Cusco are encouraged to spend a few days relaxing in the city beforehand, undergoing the process of “acclimatization,” in which your body manufactures more red blood cells so you can handle the difference. Coca tea is a favorite medicine, or even just the Coca leaves themselves, which locals chew as a stimulant (it’s the same plant that Cocain comes from, but it’s not quite as potent unrefined). Before coming here, I figured I was a reasonably fit guy, and that the altitude wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Just to be safe, I even hit the gym a few times to get ready. But my first climb up a steep Cusco street, carrying my 50-pound suitcase and huge backpack… well I guess that put me in my place.

The first few days were rather terrifying. It was as if I’d aged 50 years overnight. I found myself having to stop for breaks on the ten-minute walk from the center of town to my room, huffing and puffing like an overweight seventy-year-old with a bad case of asthma. While trying to have a simple conversation, I’d have to stop for air, which often resulted in the sympathetic Peruvian telling me the Spanish word I must have forgotten. I’d even find myself short of breath while lying in bed, and have to gasp in gulps of air like my life depended on it.

Things got better after a few days, but I still felt horrendously inept. It didn’t help when local kids sprinted past me up the steep streets, seeming to need less energy than it took me to sit on a couch. My first weekend came, and I decided it was time for action.

The Sacred Valley is located just north of Cusco. The heartland of the Inca empire, it has a number of magnificent ruins, second only to the world-renowned Machu Picchu. It is also known for its spectacular hikes, many of them only moderate in intensity. And, most importantly, it is, on average, nearly 1,000 meters lower than Cusco itself. I had the medicine I needed.

On Saturday afternoon, I packed my camera, some clothes, and a borrowed guidebook, and set off for a street that a Peruvian friend had told me about. This obscure alleyway was where one could take colectivos to Pisac, one of the closest towns in the Sacred Valley. These colectivos, or combis were just about what I expected: a sort of grotesque mixture between a bus and a taxi, battered vans that packed in passengers and took you all to your destination for an absurdly low fee. The combi I wanted was not hard to find.

“Pisac! Pisac! PIIIIIIISAC!!!!” the driver screamed, gesticulating towards his van.  Pisac was boldly etched across the front, for anyone who hadn’t gotten the message. When I muttered that I was indeed going to Pisac, the man looked at me as if he had just recognized a long-lost friend, and then herded me enthusiastically into his van. I only had to wait another fifteen minutes or so for the combi to fill up; apparently Pisac is a rather popular destination. That, or a number of terrified passersby had opted to abandon their plans for the day and head to Pisac, rather than crush the dreams of my shrieking driver. Squashed in the back corner of the van, with my hiking pack crammed into my lap, I watched as the we left the narrow cobblestone streets of Cusco behind.

On the road to Pisac, I met a most fascinating traveler. She didn’t look quite Peruvian, but she spoke perfect Spanish, and looked to be in her mid twenties. She wore an impressive array of shawls and an elaborate headdress, and carried a small guitar-like instrument the likes of which I had never seen. After some conversation, I deduced that she was in fact from Jordan, but that she now lived in Ecuador, where she tended her own chocolate farm. She had lived in a number of places, including Ohio, and had two brothers who worked in New York City, but she preferred the Ecuadorian jungle, where one could be in touch with nature and the healing power of the moon. Biking was the best way to travel, she asserted, and she had traversed all of South America by bicycle to prove it.

When we got out at Pisac, a quaint, neatly-arranged little town nestled beneath a looming mountain, my new acquaintance helped me find a hostel for the night, and then went off to meet up with some friends at a local school. By this time, it was about 4:30, well after the supposed closing time of the famed Pisac ruins (3:00, according to my guidebook). However, as I walked down the main street that runs through the town, a taxi driver rushed up to me, offering a ride up to the site. He assured me that the ruins were open until 6:00, a fact that I questioned, but since I had limited time in the Sacred Valley, I decided to at least pretend to believe him.

You can hike up to the ruins from the town, but this is an all-day venture. Considering the lateness of the hour, I decided to take the man’s offer (after a little haggling). He would bring me up to the ruins, and I would hike back to town. As we wound up the curving road, we passed a number of backpackers, all heading in the opposite direction. I asked my driver how easy it was to follow the paths back.

“For me, it’s easy, because I know them,” he said. “I don´t know how easy it will be for you.” He casually mentioned that it would be getting dark soon, and offered to come pick me up in an hour and a half when the site closed.

I pondered his offer for awhile. It was already going to cost me 20 soles to get to the top, not to mention the entrance fee to the site. My guidebook said it would take about 2 hours to hike back to town, and I figured I’d be able to beat the guidebook´s time.

“No, gracias,” I said. “I´ll find my own way back.”

My driver asked if I had a light, and I told him no. The car stopped at the top entrance to the ruins. He briefly showed me a map of winding paths, took my money, wished me luck, and drove off.

The entrance gate was eerily devoid of any official waiting to sell me a ticket. But there were a few kids dressed in traditional Andean garb hoping to take a picture for a tip, and I could see a few tourists milling about on the distant terraces. So I put on my pack and set off.

In the heyday of the Inca empire, the fortress at Pisac had been used to defend the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. Its uses, however, were not only military, but also agricultural and religious. The steady terraces leading down the mountainside were used to cultivate a wide array of crops at altitudes that would not have been possible if it weren’t for the genius of the Incan agricultural system.

As I descended the mountain paths, I passed through ruins of ancient temples and storehouses, dark tunnels, and steep stone stairways. Bellow me, the valley stretched out for miles, providing views of pastures and snaking rivers. For awhile, I was so enthralled by the scenery that I forgot I was short on time. When I checked my watch, it was well past five, and the sun had begun to sink behind the mountain peaks.

Realizing it was probably time to get moving, I set off at a moderate clip. Before long, however, I came to a fork in the mountain pass. I couldn’t decide whether to head directly towards town, or to take the path that I thought (based on my very sketchy mental picture of the map my driver had shown me) lead to the lower entrance to the ruins. As if to taunt me, an arrow on the ground pointed back in the direction I had come.

I had to make a decision, so I turned left. I presumed this path would take me to the main entrance, from where I would follow the road back to town. I walked for about fifteen minutes on a fairly level path. The sky was getting dark, and the first stars were beginning to appear overhead. I felt less and less sure about my decision, but I wasn’t about to turn back now. Finally, I reached a road…

And realized that I was only 100 meters or so below the very point where I had started. This was not the main entrance, just some street connecting the ruins to some houses and farms off in the distance. I had taken a wrong turn, setting myself back by a good half hour. It was getting very dark.

Trying not to ponder the very real possibility of having to spend the night on the mountain, I doubled back the way I had come. I tried to strike a healthy balance between speed and caution, thinking it advisable to avoid tripping and taking a spill down the Incan agricultural system of terraces that everyone talked about so much. By the time I reached the fork in the road, the sun had set completely.

Using the scant light provided by the stars, I made my way down the mountain path. Sometimes it was tricky to see the way, but as my eyes adjusted, it got easier. Once the town of Pisac came into view below me, its lights helped as well. I stopped worrying about adding a fresh archeological specimen to the Pisac ruins. I was a creature of the night.

When I was close enough to town to hear dogs barking and laughing voices, I saw a group of silhouettes headed up the path towards me. Figuring that if I was going to be mugged, I might as well be friendly about it, I shouted out a greeting. The group responded in kind, and after seeing them up close, I realized they were four backpackers like myself. They said they were heading up to the mountain top for the night, to sleep beneath the stars. I guess I wasn’t the only fool in the Sacred Valley after all.

The rest of the trip was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit considerably less dangerous. I hiked some more steep paths the next day in Ollantaytambo, but I had the sense (and time) to do it while the sun was in the sky. Just to be adventurous, I sneaked into the famous Ollantaytambo ruins without paying (thanks to a tip by my Pisac nighttime comrades, who had visited this place as well). I was planning to buy an all-inclusive Tourist Ticket anyway, so I wasn’t really saving money by hiking up the side of the mountain and sneaking in the back. But it was worth it for the thrill.

I returned to Cusco on Sunday night, thoroughly exhausted. In just a day and a half, I had explored terrific Incan ruins, haggled for a bargain on an alpaca-wool sweater, eaten the best trout I’d ever had, and risked my life in the mountains. And, best of all, I hadn’t felt even the slightest bit of altitude sickness the entire time.

The Secret Path into the Ollantaytambo ruins (a $25 value!)

Ollantaytambo ruins

Incan Granaries, on the other side of town.

I met some travelers from Chili and the U.S. when I was exploring the granaries. One of the good things about that is now I have proof that I haven’t just been uploading these pictures from google images.

My new friends at a wonderful restaurant in Ollantaytambo. We opted not to try Cuy (guinea pig, a traditional Peruvian dish), but the outdoor setting and friendly patrons made this place unforgettable anyway.

Dream or Deathwish? The Journey from Lima to Cusco

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As I sat in the crowded bus station in downtown Lima, I was feeling a little apprehensive about the coming journey. Why? Well, for one, I had heard stories about Peruvian buses. The drivers were crazy, some said; they would navigate the tight mountain passes of the Highlands as if they were on a Nascar track. Robberies were also a risk, I had heard. You’d rush out of the bus at one of the few stops, desperate to relieve yourself, only to be held at gunpoint with your pants halfway down. Many of Peru’s bus companies would ignore basic safety, cutting costs by hiring only one driver for a 20-hour trip. But not to worry, websites consoled me: all these issues could be avoided by paying a little extra money for a reputable, tourist-friendly service such as Cruz del Sur. So why was I apprehensive? Maybe it was because I had decided not to pay a little extra money… and to go with Civa instead.

I was one of perhaps three foreigners in the station, and as I dragged my luggage across the crowded floor, locals threw me what-the-hell-does-this-gringo-think-he’s-getting-himself-into sort of looks. My fears had not been allayed when the lady selling my ticket had insisted on me paying in cash “because we don’t have enough here in the till”. Nor was I set at ease by the man who walked through the bus after we had boarded, videotaping each passenger with a handheld camera. I smiled queasily, supposing that if this was to be the last recorded moment of my life, I might as well make it look like I was having a good time.

At 4:30 pm, the engine roared to life. I gripped the edge of my seat. Now was the moment of truth. That, or sometime in the next 20 hours. Would I make it? Or would I end up at the bottom of some crevice, with nothing but a 3-second video-clip and an unconvincing smile to remember me by? I waited. And waited… and waited. At 5:30 pm, the bus pulled out of the station, and began crawling through Lima’s crowded streets. I was on the second floor, where the semi-camas, or half-beds were. I had bought a semi-cama because they were cheaper tickets, and I thought I might have a better view. But so far, there was nothing worth seeing, except for the occasional narrowly-avoided taxi accident and a couple of street dancers who performed in front of a horde of traffic (courageous buggers).

At 6 o’clock, the bus stopped again. This time we were just parked along the side of a street. I was beginning to consider demanding my money back and going for the free walking service to Cusco, when an employee came upstairs. “We are going to have a vote,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have any DVDs on the bus, because we left them at the station. We can wait for someone to go pick them up, which will take about an hour… or we can move on, without any movies.” Well, I thought, even if Peru has terrible buses, at least they’re promoting the democratic process. As voices rose up in favor of moving on, I enthusiastically agreed. A 21-hour trip had already turned into a 22-hour one, and I’d be damned if it was to become 23 on the account of some poorly-dubbed reject from the local used DVD sale.

As we finally got out of Lima, we were served pathetic helpings of dry rice, questionable chicken, and some sickly-sweet brown soda. I wolfed it all down despite myself, and leaned back in my semi-cama to sleep. It was too dark to see anything now, and there would be plenty of time for that in the morning.

I was jolted awake by a careening sensation, followed by a smack as my body was thrown against the wall beside me. I pulled back the curtains, my hearth thumping in my chest. The windows were covered with condensation, and I began to notice that it was horrendously cold. I cleared a window with my sleeve, and almost yelled out in terror. We were careening down a narrow road, with a sharp curve ahead, and not even a guard rail between us and the sheer drop-off into darkness. I truck puttered along in front of us, and I wondered, in terror, when our driver was going to slow down. He didn’t. Swerving across  the double-yellow line, the bus skidded around the truck, passing it at the sharpest point in the curve, and sending pebbles off into the chasm below. Somehow, we stayed on the road.

Well, I thought as I caught my breath, it couldn’t get any worse than that. Then again, if our driver was willing to attempt that maneuver, what wouldn’t he do? We continued to speed up and down narrow cliff roads, barely slowing down on the 180-degree turns. As if teasing me, a digital screen at the front of the bus read “0 km/ hour”. Signs by the side of the road warned “Caida de piedras” (Falling Rocks) and “Giro brusco” (Sharp Turn). There was even one that read “No cobra su vida (Don’t kill yourself). Es importante.” But our beloved driver did not seem to find this so importante.

Once I had at least partially come to terms with the very real prospect of death, the bus ride became rather enjoyable. The heat finally came on, just as the sun was rising. While the sunrise made the heat somewhat unnecessary, it also provided views that my camera, limited by movement and a glaring bus window, could only begin to capture. Spectacular views, to be sure, but after fifteen hours of sitting in my semi-cama, I wanted to stretch my legs, eat some decent food, and have a break from the electronic music blasting from personal speakers. (Few Peruvians seem to acknowledge the benefits of headphones, and I was subjected to everything from “No me digas que no” to “I want it that’a way”, which would not necessarily have been so bad if it hadn’t been competing with at least two other songs.) When we finally came upon Cusco, after a whopping 23 hours of travel, it was a sight for sore eyes. It had been a long 23 hours, and I was tired, starving, and grouchy. But it hadn’t all been bad. I had seen terrific mountains, traditional terraced farms, and quaint roadside villages. I had learned that a Peruvian could sing aloud to “Shot Through the Heart” by Bon Jovi with just as much gusto as an English-speaker. And, most importantly, I was alive.

The Beginning: Adventures in Lima

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The last couple of days have been a whirlwind of hectic travel, enjoyable sightseeing, exquisite culinary adventures, and life-threatening taxi rides. Since I had less than two days in Lima, Peru’s sprawling metropolitan capital, I wanted to see as much as possible before moving on to Cusco. Unfortunately Aeromexico, the operator of my flight from Mexico City to Lima, wasn’t going to let me have such a smooth experience.

When I landed in Mexico City, I had to reclaim my suitcase and drag it through the airport to re-check it. This struck me as somewhat unnecessary. I mean, isn’t this the twenty-first century? With all this modern technology, for instance COMPUTERS, you’d think a baggage transfer wouldn’t be such a complicated operation.

When I arrived, huffing and puffing, at the Aeromexico check-in desk, the lady asked me to wait for a half hour. They were “waiting for some seats to clear” before they could let me in, she said. Weird. I seemed to recall buying a ticket on this flight, and last I knew, that reserves one a seat. But I still had over 2 hours before the flight left, hadn’t eaten  a square meal for 14 hours, and had caught sight of a Subway on my way in, so I didn’t’ complain. When I returned  to try and check in again, it was a different worker who asked me to wait “just another 5 or 10 minutes.” By my third attempt, the line had gotten long and was barely moving.  I kept checking my watch. I had less than an hour left before my flight left now, and I was still far back in line. I started to consider causing a scene and yelling madly at the Aeromexico man in my less-than-perfect Spanish.  Finally they said everyone on the flight to Lima could skip the line, and there was a mad rush for the ticket counters. Fortunately, I just made the plane. Unfortunately, my suitcase didn’t.

I suppose I wasn’t that surprised when it never showed at the Lima baggage claim. I wasn’t the only unhappy passenger. The Aeromexico representative told us the delayed bags would come in late that night. I told her I had a bus to Cusco the next day, so they’d better.

I tried to put this unfortunate mishap out of my mind as I exited the airport and looked for a taxi. Scores of potential rides to my hostel literally screamed at me to accept their offers, but I knew these drivers would charge an arm and a leg. Being rather attached to my appendages, I sought out other options. I found some airport personnel and asked them for a recommendation. They were all laughing about something, and one of them started to tell me that all his friends were gay, a fact that he accentuated with a number of enthusiastic hand gestures. It took me some time to explain to the man, over roars of laughter, that as fascinating as the sexual persuasions of his friends might be, the information I sought was how best to get downtown. He said he had a friend who would take me. I refrained from saying: “you mean downtown, right?”

Fortunately, this was what he meant. The taxi driver said he would bring me to my hostel for 45 sols (about $17). I told him I had read not to offer more than 40, to which he responded that the toll was included, making explanatory gestures at a sign which probably had nothing to do with tolls or even taxis, but had some numbers on it and looked very official. He was a nice guy and we had a good conversation, so at the end of the trip I gave him his 45 sols and refrained from pointing out that we had definitely not gone through a toll booth.

A little more about taxi drivers in Lima: they’re terrifyingly reckless, excessively aggressive, and quite often absolutely insane. The highway to the airport had space for four lanes… except there weren’t any lanes, or if there were, nobody observed them. What resulted was an all-out free-for-all, complete with roaring engines, exceedingly fast stops, and more total honks than a month of Boston-area rush hour traffic. People in Lima absolutely love honking, often when they’re in the wrong, and sometimes for no reason at all. If there are cars in front of them, they honk, no matter if there’s a red light or an old lady crossing the street. Of course, nobody pays any attention, including the old lady crossing the street, so the horn is completely useless. It seems to have evolved into nothing more than some (rather limited) form of self-expression. When taxi drivers aren’t busy honking at other taxi drivers, they’re usually honking at pedestrians like me: two quick, polite toots that translate, in English, to “Want a ride?” They’re especially insistent with gringos, probably because many of us don’t know to haggle. The fact is, the law makes no effort to stop unofficial taxis, and a taxi sign is as easy to come by as a can of coke (I even saw a lady walking through stopped traffic trying to sell them.) So everyone and his cousin owns a taxi, and if you can’t get a driver to take you where you want to go for a reasonable price, his cousin probably will.

To demonstrate the insanity of Lima taxi drivers: pictured here is a taxi duel. Somehow, these two guys ended up facing each other in a traffic-ridden street. They spent about 10 minutes honking and basically playing chicken, until one finally yielded and backed up. I would assume one of them had to have been in the right… but who knows?

My first day in Lima was a great success. I went to the Historic Center and saw some of the sites, like the Plaza Mayor and the San Francisco Monastery.

Plaza Mayor, in the Historic Center of Lima

Palacio del Gobierno (Palace of the Government) at Plaza Mayor

The monastery was established by the Franciscan Order, which still controls it today, but has been so kind as to open it up as a museum. Unfortunately, said Franciscan Order is not so kind as to allow any photographs whatsoever, so I can’t show you any of the inside. It has some pretty neat old rooms with spiral staircases, dusty old books, and Spanish paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. The best part was at the end when the tour guide led as through the catacombs. Piles and piles of bones were neatly arranged for our viewing. There was even a massive pit with hundreds of femurs arranged in a circle, surrounding a vast collection of human skulls. Back in the day, the monks of the Franciscan Order were all buried in these catacombs. I have to wonder if they ever had a conversation like this:

Father Mendez: One day we will be buried in this monastery, to rest forever beneath the earth.

Father Jorge Luis de San Francisco: “Yes, brother, unless perchance this site is excavated some day, and all our bones are mixed together and organized into aesthetically-pleasing displays that tourists will flock to enjoy. My skull may very well rest atop your femur someday.”

San Francisco Monaster

Father Mendez: “Father Jorge Luis de San Francisco, that is disgusting and simply doesn’t bear thinking about. And what’s a tourist? This is the sixteenth century!”

My lunch in central Lima was almost as good as seeing the corpses of the reverend Fathers Mendez and Jorge Luis de San Francisco. In Peru they have an option to eat “Menu”, which basically means that you’ll get three courses selected from a small list of options, and it’s often a real mother of a meal. I couldn’t face trying the famous raw fish dish called Ceviche on my first day, so I had soup, rice, beans, chicken, and a delicious warm honey-like drink called Cebada. And all for 8.5 sols (about 3 dollars). I left full to the brim, awkwardly leaving a tip for no one in particular because I felt like I had taken advantage of someone.

At Plaza Mayor, I met some university students who wanted help with a project they had for their English class. Their assignment was to find tourists and videotape short conversations, which often ended up being hilarious. Example:

Student: “Excuse me, can you help me with something?”

Me: “Sure, what do you need?”

Student: “What’s your name?”

I tried to explain that this did not make a whole lot of sense, except perhaps as a rather clumsy pick-up line, but the girls did not seem too concerned. Later, my new friends took me to the Magic Water Circuit, which I think will be adequately described by the pictures.

Cup’o tea anyone?

That night, as I was fast asleep in my hostel, one of the employees woke me up and started talking to me. At first I thought I was dreaming, and the rapid Spanish did not help with overall comprehension, but I managed to piece together something about my suitcase being sent to the hostel. My luggage had been found! I mumbled an incoherent spew of groggy exclamations that were probably half English and half Spanish. The employee smiled and walked out.

That rounded off a great day in Lima. And now I will be able to catch my bus to Cusco after all. It will be a twenty-hour trip with dangerous cliff passes, potential robberies, and bathrooms without toilet paper (or so I have read online). Stay tuned, beloved readers!

A few more pictures:

Lima’s Miraflores district, a trendy, touristy, well-off part of town.

Ceviche is a raw fish dish, prepared with lemon and other spices. Everyone from Lima seems to love it. I have to admit I was quite afraid, but I had to try it. I cleaned off the plate.

I don’t know exactly what this is, but I thought it was pretty cool.